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City Taps Nonprofit Lawyers to Help Tackle Backlog of Rental Assistance Claims

The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC are being authorized to help tenants facing eviction by processing rental assistance applications directly.

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Acting Commissioner of DSS Molly Park testifies at a City Council budget hearing about funding for rental-assistance programs like CityFHEPS, March 13, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Two major attorney groups are being deputized to help the city Department of Social Services address its ballooning backlog of rental assistance applications.

The move follows multiple reports that people eligible for housing vouchers through the city’s Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) have faced glitches and delays in receiving benefits — resulting in eviction cases against some tenants. 

Previously, tenants had to go to Human Resources Administration-sponsored resource centers, called Homebases, for assistance with applying for CityFHEPS benefits. But applicants often have to wait for months to get an appointment, as THE CITY highlighted last month. Some of HRA’s Homebases don’t even have working phone numbers. 

Under the new partnership, lawyers from The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC — two of the groups that provide public defenders to clients in need — will be able to process CityFHEPS applications for their existing clients facing eviction in Housing Court. They are being trained in the process now and aim to start in April, according to lawyers involved.

“This is a good short-term fix to help with the bottleneck of cases across Homebases and HRA offices,” said Eric Lee, director of policy and planning at Homeless Services United, who works with a coalition of Homebase staff, legal providers and social workers. “The long-term fix is providing more funding for HRA and Homebase staff to do this work in the community.”

The pilot program would not include applications for people who are already living in shelter, or annual recertifications for those already receiving benefits. The legal-help nonprofits are already responsible for submitting state-funded cash assistance applications.

Shifting the Weight

The social services department (DSS) said that the partnership is one of many ways it is trying to reduce the administrative obstacles for vulnerable New Yorkers as the end of the end of the pandemic eviction moratorium increased the number of people who qualify for assistance.  

“As part of our commitment to helping housing-insecure New Yorkers navigate the standard application process in light of the expiration of pandemic-related protections, we are now also accepting CityFHEPS to Stay submissions from Legal Aid Society on behalf of their clients facing eviction in Housing Court, which will represent a very small percentage of the overall number of New Yorkers we work to connect to CityFHEPS,” DSS spokesperson Neha Sharma told THE CITY on Monday. 

Sharma also noted other recent DSS initiatives to address the housing crisis, like reducing work requirements, expanding income eligibility and, for those in shelters, waiving apartment application fees. 

While lawyers who will be taking on the new responsibilities said they are happy to see DSS trying to address obstacles to benefits, they noted that doing so transfers a heavy burden to them.

“We spend so much time trying to contact Homebase that we understand this is a better system,” said a Legal Aid lawyer who received the notice from management last week but wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “We’re overwhelmed too, we lost lots of staff, but we understand that this is a crisis.”

The CityFHEPS program has come under renewed scrutiny from the City Council in recent months, after reports of slow response times and delayed payments citywide. 

In her State of The City speech on Wednesday, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams called the vouchers “one of our most effective solutions to keep New Yorkers in their homes and move existing shelter residents into permanent housing.”

She vowed the “Council will soon pass legislation to remove barriers to CityFHEPS so that more New Yorkers can access stable housing.”

At a January oversight hearing, Councilmember Diana Ayala (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) noted “the current realities of the program for many are hard to navigate, and laden with cumbersome and often circuitous bureaucracy that too often creates barriers to receiving assistance in a timely manner.” 

In response at the time, a DSS official pointed to staffing shortages as the reason for delays — a growing issue at agencies and offices across city government. 

A Council committee report Monday said that HRA has a 14.7 percent vacancy rate, with 1,779 positions unfilled. Officials have said that has left the office that processes CityFHEPs applications with approximately 100 administrators to process over 7,000 applications and renewals every year.

Desperately Needed

Debra Velasquez, 55, is a CityFHEPS recipient who has been unable to complete the annual recertification of her benefits since mid-December, despite having a Legal Aid Society lawyer assisting her. Her landlord is still missing rent that was supposed to be paid by the city, covering January and February at least. 

“I’ve had to resubmit the application twice now. I’ve never had so much trouble getting what I need until now, until after COVID,” said Velasquez, who is unable to work due to a disability and has received some form of rental assistance for over a decade. “Everything used to be face-to-face, now it’s just send, send, send.”

After THE CITY reached out to an HRA spokesperson about Velasquez’s case, she said she heard from an agency administrator who asked her to resubmit the forms again.

She is hopeful that this will be the last time. 

“The fact that Legal Aid is willing to help is great, it’s really needed,” Velasquez said.

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